Sunday # 5: January 29, 2012 – Is very short fiction the downfall of literature?

This week I contemplated writing more about drunk driving because over the past year it has become a bit of a bee in my bonnet. I opted, however, for a different direction instead, one that is a diversion from the depressing seriousness of such heavy topics. So here we go…

Very short fiction is not something I’d heard about until last year in my short fiction forms class. I’d always viewed “short fiction” as the traditional short story—shorter than a novel or novella, but still potentially on the longish side. What I learned in that class is that newer and shorter fiction forms are rapidly emerging and catching on. Whole books of very short stories are being written, and whole websites are being dedicated to them. One of those websites is full of so-called “six word stories.” This particular word number for a story limit comes from a famous story attributed to Ernest Hemingway. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” It’s such an evocative story that over the years many writers have tried the format on for its tiny size. If you are interested in reading some of these stories, check out the site:

Even I once wrote a series of six word stories when I was delayed on a flight leaving San Francisco. (I wrote them on an air sick bag because I didn’t have anywhere else to write them. Somewhere lost in my files around my office, I still have the bag. I even turned a couple of the six word stories into slightly longer versions for my short fiction class.) For someone like me, who tends to the wordier side of speaking and writing, writing a full story in six words was challenging—and fun.

These very short fiction forms range in word limits and go by many names: flash fiction, short shorts, microfiction. Recently, I even heard the term “hint fiction.” Earlier this month, an article in Maclean’s magazine discussed “The incredible shrinking short story.” Richard Warnica, the article’s author, discusses an anthology of hint fiction (25 words or less) that was released last year; some of those stories were written by famous authors. That book’s editor, Robert Swartwood, reveals that one author (who he would not identify) refused the invitation to participate in the project. He or she explained through an agent “Thank you, but I prefer not to participate in the downfall of literature.” (You can find the full Maclean’s story here:

When I read that, frankly, I scoffed. How is writing a very short story the downfall of literature? How can something be automatically assumed to be of no value simply because it’s very short? Does that imply that only long pieces qualify as quality literature? The idea is ridiculous.

I wonder where such an idea originates. It certainly seems to come from an arrogant academic cloistered away and out of touch with the world. As long as a very short story is written well (and grammatically correctly, of course), then, in my view, it is literature. Even the Oxford Canadian Dictionary would agree. It defines literature as “written works, esp. those whose value lies in beauty of language or emotional effect” (2nd ed., p. 576).

By that definition, any length of written work can qualify as literature as long as it meets one or both of those criteria. The six word story attributed to Hemingway, for example, is clearly literature on the basis of its emotional impact.

That author who refused to participate in Swartwood’s anthology—and others like him or her—must re-evaluate what literature is. Crafting good writing has nothing to do with a minimum number of words any more than it has to do with a maximum number of words.  Crafting good writing has to do with using words to create a response in readers. That can happen with any number of words.

Instead of being the downfall of literature, very short fiction creates new readership. People who are pressed for time in our ever-busier society can find the time to read very short fiction because it can be done in small bursts. I praise this new form for its ability to reach more readers. I will continue to read it—and perhaps write it too.

Stay tuned for next week where, instead of a full blog, I may post some of my previous six word stories. (We’ll see…)

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